Leonard Peltier: Political Prisoner

Incident at Olgala: The Leonard Peltier Story

Michael Apted (1992)

Film Review

This documentary, narrated by Robert Redford, describes the framing of American Indian Movement (AIM) leader Leonard Peltier for the murder of two FBI agents. Essentially a political prisoner, Peltier is currently serving two consecutive life sentences.

The charges arose out of a June 1975 firefight in Jumping Bull on the Pine Ridge reservation in North Dakota. The film portrays quite vividly the regime of terror gripping Pine Ridge between 1973-75. It was overseen by corrupt Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) appointee Dick Wilson, with the support of BIA police. In 1973 Lakota elders, who were the primary targets of Wilson and his “goon squads” approached the national American Indian Movement (AIM) leadership for support.

By mid-1975, the reservation was in a state of virtual war, with more than 60 unsolved murders and frequent firefights like the one that occurred in Jumping Bull.

Based on this background, Pelter’s co-defendants Daryl Butler and Bib Ribideau won acquittal on their first degree murder charges. Given the two FBI agents were in civilian dress, unknown to the defendants and drew their guns on them, the jury found Butler and Ribideau were merely defending themselves in firing their weapons.

Peltier, who had to be extradited from Canada, was assigned a different judge. By the time of his trial in 1997, the FBI had clearly doctored the ballistics evidence and browbeat and intimidated two eyewitnesses into changing their statements.

Peltier’s arrest and trial occurred during a period when the FBI  see The FBI’s War on Black People) was hoping to kill off both AIM and the Black Panther Party by decimating their leadership – through covert assassination and arresting as many as possible on phony charges.

The film can’t be embedded for copyright reason but can be seen free at Incident at Olgala

What Really Happened at Waco?

Waco: The Rules of Engagement

Directed by William Gazecki (1997)

Film Review

Waco is a long but well-made documentary about what was essentially an FBI coverup of an unlawful military assault on innocent civilians. What immediately struck me about the film are the obvious parallels between the military assault at Waco, the 1975 incident at Pine Ridge in which Leonard Peltier and other AIM activists were arrested for resisting an armed FBI assault and the FBI/Philadelphia police decision to bomb the MOVE compound in 1985 (see The Day Philadelphia Police Dropped a Bomb on 61 Families).

The documentary is anchored around a 1995 Congressional investigation which, unlike the whitewash of the JFK assassination, the Oklahoma City bombing and 9-11, successfully unearthed most of the sordid facts about the government’s illegal (and unconstitutional) military assault in Waco. Predictably the corporate media buried the investigation and its findings. Thus the systematic disinformation the Clinton administration disseminated about David, Koresh and the Branch Davidians is what remains uppermost in the public mind.

What surprised me most about the film was learning that the Branch Davidians weren’t a cult, that the Mount Carmel church where they lived wasn’t a bunker and that David Koresh himself wasn’t a deranged psychopath who buffaloed his followers into a virtual suicide pact.

The Branch Davidians were actually an old offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventist Church which relocated from Los Angeles to the Mount Carmel center at Waco in the 1930s. Koresh (born Vernon Howell) was raised there and eventually selected as the group’s spiritual leader.

Testimony given during the Congressional hearings establishes quite clearly that the initial ATF assault (in which the Branch Davidians defended themselves and killed four ATF agents) was a public relations stunt aimed at influencing upcoming ATF appropriations hearings.

The supposed justification for the assault was the presence of illegal weapons on the premises. As good Texans, the Branch Davidians visited a lot of gun shows and bought and sold weapons as a source of revenue. The search warrant accused them of illegally modifying automatic weapons – which Koresh denied. He invited the ATF to come and inspect their guns in mid-1992. The ATF declined to do so.

Most of the media attention (and the search warrant itself) focused on the fact that Koresh had multiple wives, included several who were underage teenagers. While both polygamy and child rape are illegal under Texas law, they in no way justify a full scale military assault that kills innocent civilians, including the rape victims themselves.

The FBI would follow up the failed ATF operation with a full scale military siege (with tanks) that lasted 51 days.

The evidence presented during the hearings includes intriguing clips from a video camera FBI negotiators gave the Branch Davidians to talk about themselves and their beliefs and infrared footage showing the FBI, Janet Reno and Bill Clinton lied through their teeth about not firing on the Branch Davidians and David Koresh deliberately starting the fire that destroyed the compound.

It also comes out that the FBI deliberately destroyed the crime scene (as Bush would later do at Ground Zero), as well as systematically obstructing efforts by the local medical examiner and the Texas Rangers to conduct independent investigations.

When Government Goes to War Against Us

Cointelpro 101: The Sabotage of Legitimate Dissent

By Andres Alegria, Prentis Hemphill, Anita Johnson and Claude Marks (2010)

Film Review

Cointelpro is the name given to the illegal counterinsurgency program FBI director J Edgar Hoover launched in the fifties and sixties against the civil rights movement, the American Indian Movement, the Puerto Rican independence movement, the Chicano/Mexicano rights movement, unions and different social justice movements. Its various tactics included illegal surveillance, wiretaps and break-ins, extrajudicial assassinations and plots to frame activists for crimes they didn’t commit.

The program had to be kept secret because it was illegal. The American public only learned about Cointelpro after antiwar activists broke into a Philadelphia office the FBI shared with the Selective Service in 1971. Intending to destroy draft registration documents, they accidentally stumbled across Cointelpro-related letters and memos and leaked them to the press.

Hoover’s War Against Black Empowerment

Cointelpro’s most high profile target was the civil rights and black liberation movement. Hoover openly wrote of his goal of “liquidating” the entire Black Panther leadership. Some Black Panther leaders were killed in cold blood. Chicago leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were shot in their sleep in 1969. The same year the FBI assassinated two Los Angeles Black Panther leaders at UCLA and two San Diego leaders while they were selling newspapers.

When Vietnam veteran Geronimo Pratt assumed leadership of the LA branch, the police (in cooperation with the FBI) tried to kill him via the armed assault and bombing of the LA Black Panther office. When this failed, they framed him on a murder charge, despite FBI surveillance records that placed him in Oakland at the time of the murder. Pratt spent twenty-seven years in prison before these records surfaced and exonerated him.

The Church Committee, a senate committed convened in the mid-seventies, identified more than two hundred criminal FBI attacks against Black Panther leaders, including murder, driving people insane and framing them on phony charges. No FBI operatives were ever prosecuted for these crimes, and more than a dozen black liberation activists (including Mumia Abu Jamal and Mike, Debbie and Janet Africa) remain in prison on trumped up charges.

The Reign of Terror at Pine Ridge

Following the rise of the American Indian Movement (AIM) to demand enforcement of treaty rights, Hoover launched a reign of terror (1973-76) on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. During this period, death squads killed or disappeared scores of residents who dared to challenge the corrupt tribal leadership. When reservation elders sought the protection of the AIM leadership, one them, Leonard Peltier, was wrongfully convicted of the double murder of two FBI agents. As in Pratt’s case, the FBI deliberately concealed evidence exonerating him. After nearly forty years, he, too, remains in prison.

Cointelpro Never Ended

Contrary to government claims, Cointelpro didn’t end in 1971 when it was exposed. In 1983, documents came to light revealing that the FBI had illegally infiltrated, spied and disrupted the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador. The latter, a group I belonged to between 1982 and 1985, was a grassroots organization that campaigned against Reagan’s military support of El Salvador’s right wing dictatorship.

This documentary finishes by pointing out that many previously illegal Cointelpro activities – warrantless surveillance and wiretapping, clandestine break-ins and pre-emptive arrest for dissident political views – are now perfectly legal under the Patriot Act.